Picture this: A Black man is accused of a crime he assuredly did not commit. He stands trial in a court full of White faces, both in the jury and judge. Consequently, he is wrongfully convicted and sentenced to a lifetime in jail, subject to the vicious cycle of America’s criminal justice system. Similar situations may have been expected in the 1960s at a time when our nation was lawfully divided by race and often gender. It shouldn’t be the case in 2016.
The American Constitution Society (ACS) released a report last week that explains the lack of representation among our country’s state court judges, labeling this issue “The Gavel Gap.”
The painful truth lies within the fact that, even though women represent 51 percent of the U.S. population, they only constitute 30 percent of state court judges. The same imbalance applies to people of color as well: Though they’re nearly 40 percent of this country’s population, people of color only make up 20 percent of state judges. Such polarizing numbers prove a serious lack of diversity within our judicial system and an inaccurate representation of American communities. As the report notes:
“Our courts must be representative in order to fulfill their purposes. Our laws are premised in part on the idea that our courts will be staffed by judges who can understand the circumstances of the communities which they serve. Our judicial system depends on the general public’s faith in its legitimacy. Both of these foundational principles require a bench that is representative of the people whom the courts serve.”
Having courts that reflect a community’s demographics is an imperative since state courts settle more than 90 percent of our country’s judicial cases. In their report, ACS says that within the state court system, White men are “casting too large a shadow.” The percentage of White men within state courts proves to be an overwhelming majority: 30 percent of the U.S. population vs. 58 percent of state court judges.
State-specific cases prove to be just as alarming: In West Virginia, women represent 51 percent of the population, yet only count for 11 percent of judges. In Georgia, 85 percent of judges are white – but only 54 percent of the population.
In their promotional video, ACS asks viewers, “Is it surprising that only 52 percent of Blacks trust state courts when 70 percent of Whites do?” After reviewing the report’s findings, viewers likely aren’t surprised.
Read more about the Gavel Gap in the full report here.